"That they might be called righteous terebinths, the planting in which the Lord God takes pride." (Is. 61:3)
Righteous pistachia, nut trees of justice. And yet also "righteous pillars," marking out and defining in prominence that place in which the Lord God takes pride. Being the "righteous strength" of that place, because the Lord God is their strength. And that righteous strength has purpose: what had been made into desert and wilderness, the redeemed will restore. God has redeemed the people from exile, and restores them in their land -- God's land, truly -- and theirs is to be a redeeming strength in that land, the responsive echo of God's own redeeming strength. A strength of justice.
And the text could just as well read "oaks" as "terebinths." It would certainly be more familiar to us -- the stately European and American Oaks of our acquaintance certainly speak of strength and prominence, and shade the meaning of `ayil in the text. But you will not find tall, deep-rooted and well-watered temperate-zone oak trees in Palestine. No structural pillars and beams of quartersawn heartwood as in Europe. Oaks in Palestine and the Med are spiny, durable shrubs, evergreen, and good for grazing sheep and goats. They grow among terebinths, equally shrubby nut trees whose sap is a preservative. The mention of these trees speaks automatically of Mamre, where Abram pitched his tent. And yet these specific trees are both `elon, not `ayil. `Ayil speaks to the strength of these trees in their place, as much as to the strength of the ram in the flock and the stag in the herd. To their noteworthy prominence. Of such is the people of God's own redemption, planted in God's own land. Hardy, adaptable, strong, flourishing where we are planted because God has planted us there.
But we are only this because God has redeemed us, and Isaiah says as much. We are this hardy people, planted in this land, in the joy of this God, because the God who punishes our injustice never abandons us, and always restores us to a new justice. And so we praise God in the words of this text, even as we hear their echoes in Mary's song in Luke:
Rejoicing will I rejoice in the Lord;And this hymn resonates with Paul's commendation to the assembly in Thessalonika, too: "Now may the same God of peace sanctify you completely and in every part, and keep your spirit, life and body without reproach in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." In this way we were established as pillars of justice, and in this way we will be upheld and confirmed in the coming of our Lord. Not because we are perfect, or because we have ever been perfect in our history, but because God delights in us, and it is God's own justice to establish us, to cause us to bloom where planted, and to keep us just by every means necessary.
The breath of my life will dance with my God!
For God has dressed me in salvation,
With a robe of justice covered me,
As a groom puts on a suit of joy
And a bride bedecks herself in silks.
For as the land puts forth its blossoms,
And the garden germinates her seeds,
So the Lord produces justice
In the sight of every nation.
In this season of Advent, as we suffer the hardships of growing where we are, let us remember that we, too, are redeemed. We are also children of God, adopted in the Son who will be born at Christmas, the one whose name is Yeshua, the salvation God clothes us in as wedding finery. If we have been established as a people, we have been established for the sake of justice. Let us be alert to the coming of that justice among us -- because our true strength is only the echo of God's righteous redemption.